The Horror of Shirley Jackson
Writers can often become brand names. In many ways, this is because they’re encouraged to focus on a particular genre, rather than explore as many different kinds of stories as possible. For instance, the likes of George R. R. Martin can be considered a synonym for grim-dark fantasy and Isaac Asimov for science fiction. It doesn’t matter that Martin has also explored the genre of sci-fi or that Isaac Asimov had as much love for writing murder mysteries as he did for creating any of his epic space operas. The limited scope of public perception only allows them to be one thing at a time. Any irregularities in their respective bibliographies just become trivial knowledge for their diehard fans. In this regard, I’ve always known Shirley Jackson as an influential horror writer, but when I finally got around to reading her most popular novel, The Haunting of Hill House, I had to wonder if she’d become a victim of her own success.
To be sure, if you’re familiar with Shirley Jackson, it’s likely because of her most popular short story, which I’m going to guess has been read by about ninety per cent of high school student’s around the world…
Of course, if you haven’t read it, I’ll avoid any spoilers on the plot here. It’s easy to find a copy online so I encourage you to read it sometime. Suffice it to say, the spirit of the story can be expressed by a line from the recent fictionalised biopic about Jackson, in which a party guest describes his reaction to reading her work by saying that it made him consider whether he should pick up a paperweight and bash in his own skull. There’s a kind of psychological deterioration implied by the statement and it’s certainly a core part of the few stories I’ve read from Jackson so far. And when you couple this with the fact that Stephen King cites The Haunting of Hill House as one of his all-time favourites and guess that it was probably an influence on his own novel, The Shining, you’d be forgiven for expecting a more bone-chilling narrative than what you actually get.
Hill House, to put it bluntly, comes up a little short on scares at times. Shirley Jackson, the introduction explains, took a great amount of interest in the supernatural and spent a good deal of time researching gothic horror before she penned her own entry in the genre. That is to say, you’re probably familiar with the basic premise of her novel. In it, a group of people have committed themselves to staying in a haunted house with the goal of investigating the phenomena supposedly at work there.
Throughout the story, the supernatural events are gradually ramped up, such that the strange occurrences begin with doors swinging closed of their own accord, and end with uncanny visions of what happened in Hill House’s past. Even during Jackon’s own time, I’m sure that some of these elements had already become cliches, but when it comes to horror it’s fair to say that execution is a lot more important than originality. In the final review, what really matters to most people is whether the story gives them a fright. Recently, Netflix produced an adaptation of the book that I think reflects what audience expectations have become in this regard. In point of fact, rather than attempt to create anything that resembles the original novel, the TV version goes so far as to change the entire cast of characters to be that of a standard nuclear family, which is a particularly noteworthy alteration, given that the characters of the original novel are at least as important to the story as the horror aspects. In reality, if you’re to get any joy out of Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, it’ll require you to take an interest in the catty relationship between her protagonist, a sheepish young woman, and her fellow investigator, a more extroverted socialite with a potentially vicious tongue.
Just to reiterate, I can’t say that The Haunting of Hill House has become one of my own favourites. There are some truly scary moments in it though. I can see how Stephen King would have been inspired to take what he learned from it and run, which is really saying something given the heights he’d go on to achieve. But it’s interesting to see the difficulty that popular culture has had in translating what Jackson did into what most people consider to be horror. The things humans do to one another were at least as scary to Jackson as the idea of a ghost appearing at the end of a hall. The fact that a person could grind another’s sanity down till there was nothing of them left seemed to be a very real threat she saw in the day to day world. Sadly, when it comes to defining our authors, this psychological quality is sometimes too complicated to package along with the more base fears that the horror genre tries to fulfil. Whether it’s been motion pictures or TV show adaptations you can only get one quality of the Shirley Jackson brand at a time. Really though, the solution to this problem isn’t all that complicated. If you want to see what Shirley Jackson was all about, you just have to go back to her stories yourself. Strange as it sounds, while The Haunting of Hill House read as a little flat to me, it did give me a better sense of the complicated person who penned the tale. You should check it out if that’s what you’re looking for too. In the meantime, if you want to learn about another horror writer, make sure to check out my video on Stephen King, or, if you’re in the mood for a longer watch, check out my series on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.